By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Couplets are an important component of so many classic poems. Strictly speaking, a couplet is just any two successive lines of verse, but when poetry critics use the term ‘couplet’, they are usually (though not always) referring to a rhyming pair of lines, as in this short, witty epigram from Alexander Pope:
I am His Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?
These lines were supposedly inscribed on the collar of one of the dogs belonging to the Prince of Wales at the time; we’ll come back to Alexander Pope later.
Many iconic poems written in English utilise rhyming couplets, so choosing ten of the best and most illustrative couplet poems is no easy task. However, we’ve tried to offer a range of poems here to show the diverse uses to which poets have put a pair of rhyming verse lines. Below we find stately and serious poems, lighter songlike poems, and much else.
1. Mary Wroth, ‘Song’.
Love a child is ever crying;
Please him, and he straight is flying;
Give him, he the more is craving,
Never satisfied with having …
Let’s begin our exploration of the couplet in the early seventeenth century, and a short song from the first long sonnet sequence written by a woman. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus sees the female Pamphilia (‘all-loving’) address her unfaithful male lover Amphilanthus (‘lover-of-two’) in an effort to make him a more constant lover.
This song is one of a number of songs which punctuate the cycle of sonnets: something Sir Philip Sidney, whose sonnet sequence inspired Wroth’s own, had done in his Astrophil and Stella.
The rhyming couplets, combined with the falling rhythm of the weak line endings, create a simple, faintly plangent tone to this poem which likens the male lover to a baby (via Cupid, god of love): selfish, unable to commit, and constantly craving more.
2. Anne Bradstreet, ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can …
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first person in America, male or female, to have a volume of poems published. In this short and tender lyric to her husband, Bradstreet uses the heroic couplet form (iambic pentameter rhyming couplets) to lend a seriousness to her poem of devotion.
The couplet form suits a love poem, of course, because the pairing of the two rhymes, so close to each other on successive lines, mirrors the coupling of the two lovers.
3. Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day …
‘To His Coy Mistress’ is one of the most famous poems of the seventeenth century, and probably the most famous poem Andrew Marvell (1621-78) ever wrote. It’s a classic seduction poem, which sees Marvell endeavouring to persuade his would-be lover, or ‘mistress’, to go to bed with him.
The couplets and shorter lines (in tetrameter) lend the poem a headlong motion as we get swept up by Marvell’s persuasive argument …
4. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism.
But still the worst with most regret commend,
For each ill author is as bad a friend
To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urged, through sacred lust of praise!
Ah, ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost
Good-nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine …
In the late seventeenth century, and for the next hundred years or so, the most common rhyming form in English poetry was the heroic couplet: rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, as in the clipped, epigrammatic style of Alexander Pope’s discursive 1711 poem An Essay on Criticism (written when he was still only in his early twenties!).
The last line of the section we’ve quoted above has become proverbial: Pope’s point is that a good critic forgives the faults of other writers, accepting that making mistakes is part of being human and we adopt the higher moral ground when we forgive people for natural human errors.
5. Phillis Wheatley, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’.
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew …
Wheatley (c. 1753-84), the first African-American poet to have a book of poetry published, had been taken from Africa (probably Senegal) to America as a young girl, and sold into slavery. A Boston tailor named John Wheatley bought her and she became his family servant, later securing her freedom.
Wheatley’s slim poetic output is noticeably Augustan in its style and manner, and she favoured the heroic couplet. In this very short lyric, she uses this respectable form to address her own fate, and in doing so became the first published poet to write about her own experience of slavery.
6. William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
So begins one of the most famous poems to use the couplet form, and perhaps William Blake’s best-known poem. Blake (1757-1827) was an early Romantic. His work often engages with religion, and here we find him wondering what kind of god could have been responsible for the fearsome beast that is the tiger.
And how, he wonders, can the same deity have created the meek and gentle lamb? The couplets, combined with the insistent trochaic metre of the poem, lend it a firm, almost incantatory quality.
7. A. E. Housman, ‘In My Own Shire, If I Was Sad’.
In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart was sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore …
The small poetic output of the English poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936) doesn’t often utilise the rhyming couplet form. Housman preferred the quatrain form, especially that used for traditional ballads.
However, a number of his poems are in rhyming couplets, with this perhaps being the finest of them all. It’s from A Shropshire Lad, and sees the titular lad lamenting that, in the big city, people don’t look out for each other as they did back home in rural Shropshire.
8. Claude McKay, ‘Romance’.
To clasp you now and feel your head close-pressed,
Scented and warm against my beating breast;
To whisper soft and quivering your name,
And drink the passion burning in your frame;
To lie at full length, taut, with cheek to cheek,
And tease your mouth with kisses till you speak
Love words, mad words, dream words, sweet senseless words,
Melodious like notes of mating birds …
Here is a fine example of the couplet poem from the Jamaican-American Claude McKay (1889-1948). Each couplet is given its own stanza, with each pair of rhymes locking together musically: as the last line of the poem has it, ‘The poem with this music is complete.’
9. Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless …
Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen (1893-1918) the definitive English poet of the First World War.
In this poem, describing a meeting in Hell between two soldiers, one of whom killed the other in combat, Owen uses pararhyme to raise the possibility of the heroic couplet, only to thwart it. What place for the heroic couplet in that most unheroic of wars? The jarring off-rhyme of ‘escaped’ and ‘scooped’, ‘eyes’ and ‘bless’, and so on creates an unnerving effect which is in keeping with the poem’s subject-matter.
10. Adrienne Rich, ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’.
Let’s conclude with an early and oft-anthologised poem from the American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2013), about an aunt who quietly expresses the patriarchal oppression of women in her position via the embroideries of tigers she creates.
There is something simple about the rhyming couplets of the poem, with these couplets themselves being arranged into pairs to form quatrains, and the (largely iambic) pentameter metre of the poem. We discuss the poem in more detail here.